Of Christianity, PTSD, the Patriarchy and the Bees: A Tale of Two Wicker Men

One of the best possible outcomes in my line of work is to have my initial assessment of the topic in question challenged and overturned. I never expected this to come from 2006’s The Wicker Man, but here we are. Though far from perfect (quite, quite far), the film is much more than I remembered, and indeed, more than reviewers at the time thought it was. In order to understand why this Nicolas Cage vehicle was described as a garbage truck on fire, though, we must first acknowledge its incredible, important heritage. Won’t you join me on a trip to Summerisle?

Fears of the Time

Looking back at what made 1973’s The Wicker Man terrifying, it helps to put the film in its appropriate cultural and chronological context. December of that year saw this film and The Exorcist released within a week of each other, and this is no coincidence. Ritual, the novel upon which The Wicker Man is based, revolves around the same themes of Christianity and puritanism, sacrificial rituals and sexual seduction as the film which followed it. The Exorcist, also based on a novel of the same name, deals with the horrors of succumbing to the Devil himself, and how only those who are strong of faith are able to overcome him.

Both pieces are very much of their time. Great Britain and America were reeling from the Flower Power movement of the groovy ’60s, and the pendulum was swinging the other way – hard. Accompanied by a wave of economic hardship, the oil crisis and the Vietnam conflict, people’s religion played a huge role in helping them cope with conditions which were, frankly, quite brutal.

The Right Place at the Right Time

That is the best way to describe Great Britain and how it became the perfect breeding ground for The Wicker Man. The film quite clearly outlined the dangers of falling into the hands of a crazy, ritualistic cult, and Scotland, very much a religious nation (even more so back then), made for the perfect setting.

Poor Sargent Howie, played by the amazing Edward Woodward, never stood a chance against Lord Summerisle’s (Christopher Lee) minions’ poisonous mix of sexual seduction, spells and trickery, despite his devoutness, beliefs and acts of chastity. The Wicker Man is also a very interesting take on the dangers of not abiding by the rules of the land. The freedom enjoyed by the inhabitants of Summerisle is enviable, sure, but also dangerous.

Quite a few of the people involved in the making of this film think of it as the best thing they’ve ever done. This includes Christopher Lee, and he made a ton of very cool heavy metal albums. The acting is fantastic, the music is other-worldly, the photography is breathtaking. I have only touched on but a few of the many topics the film covers well. So, what in God’s green Earth made people say: “Hey! Let’s have another go!”?

Tortured, Misunderstood

I’ve been doing this gig long enough to know that you can tell a lot about a film by how hard it is to come by. I lost my DVD of The Wicker Man remake during a move, and it took me two full days to find a way to re-watch it (legally) in order to write this article. Reviews at the time absolutely thrashed it, and a couple of scenes have even made it to meme status, the Razzies of the internet (if you will).

And I can see why: the acting is atrocious. You sometimes can’t tell what the characters are supposed to be feeling, and other times, you’re left wondering what the director must have said to them in order to generate such a laughable performance (particularly from such a great cast). The dialogue is not much better, only slightly edging out M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening… but not by much. And all of this, to thread the exact same plot.

At least, that’s what I remembered of it, and what reviews of the time say. But upon re-visiting the film, I could see that while it does hit certain beats, there are very major changes to key plot-points, to a degree where you could argue that this iteration of The Wicker Man has very little to do with its origins.

The Devil Is in the Details

First off, I have to admit that as a character, I like Cage’s Edward Malus more than Edward Woodward’s Neil Howie. Now, don’t kill me! I said character. As far as performances go, Woodward’s portrayal is a masterclass in acting, while Cage’s… isn’t. But I find Howie to be too one-dimensional.

While Howie’s puritanism and devoutness are captivating, I find the PTSD exhibited by Cage’s Malus a much less travelled path. Having witnessed — and perhaps even caused — an accident that killed a little girl and her mother, Malus is plagued by depression and hallucinations, lack of motivation, and a myriad of other maladies. Though sloppily executed in parts, this trait added an element of complexity to Malus’ character that just wasn’t present in good-boy Howie.

It’s also worth remembering that while Howie was only sent as a policeman to Summerisle on an anonymous tip, Malus was asked to go to Summersisle (yes, they’re spelt differently) by his ex-fiancee. Not only that, but the girl who is missing turned out to be his daughter. As a viewer, the much higher stakes in the remake create a very strong bond with the main character that just isn’t there in the original. While I kept thinking that Woodward kind of had it coming because he was intruding on someone else’s private affairs, I felt totally on-board with Cage’s incredible rampage while looking for his daughter. Really, seeing Cage go full Cage is worth the price of admission to this film by itself.

There is also the change in one of the main subplots: from the pointlessness of religion to the abuse of the patriarchy. In this respect, I think The Wicker Man remake is actually quite ahead of its time. Again, the execution is all over the place, but a cult of ritualistic, murderous matriarchs who take revenge against men and their oppression of women is quite forward-thinking for the mid-2000s.

The Lesser Evil

Look, I’m not trying to say that the remake is better than the original. It’s not. But it’s also not as bad as we want to remember it from the memes. If there was an opposite expression to “seeing something through rose-tinted glasses”, I’d use it to describe how we think about Cage’s The Wicker Man. Our memories of the film have aged much, much worse than the film itself.

While undoubtedly flawed, the main character’s higher stakes and the film’s interesting use of modern themes such as PTSD and women’s oppression make for a surprisingly enjoyable experience. One that remains relevant today.

The best part? Every single copy I was able to find has edited out the bees.

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  1. The entire film rests on Cage’s hysterical (in the sexist terminology) and expressionistic performance. You can’t justifiably praise everything around him while continuing to misunderstand his anti-naturalistic performing style. His work is the entire reason this film is remembered — and probably a big reason why it was unfairly dismissed. His work is intnetional, extreme, and fitting to the themes of the film even if it isn’t “realistic”.

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